Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Gregg Here's A Nurse

When Gregg Easterbrook at starts talking about things other than the NFL in his TMQ column, things typically go south quickly. He discusses college football this week, and the results are unfortunate.

Let's discuss a few stupid things Easterbrook writes:

1. Gregg rants about how soft West Virginia's schedule is, calling it "among the weakest, if not the weakest, of 119 teams in Division I." He does qualify things a little bit by opening up the possibility that someone on the Mountaineers' schedule will turn out to be good. Further, in Easterbrook's email response column today he prints a message explaining why West Virginia's schedule appears weak this year.

Saying a particular school is playing an easy schedule, I believe is a tendentious argument. As Easterbrook concedes, because nobody knows how good teams are going to be, only how good they were (and what they were isn't the same as what they are). For example, before last season Notre Dame's schedule looked like a terrible task. Michigan, Tennessee, Purdue all looked like possible BCS teams. As it turned out, all three were the respective programs' worst teams in over a decade, and two of them didn't even have a winning record. Meanwhile, Oklahoma's nonconference schedule last year appeared manageable. They were scheduled to play a TCU team that had gone 5-6 the previous year, a UCLA team that had gone 6-6, and a Tulsa squad that finished a poor 4-8. Well, it turns out that TCU and Tulsa were both pretty good - both ending up conference champions and bowl game winners. UCLA won 10 games. TCU and UCLA both ended up ranked and Tulsa was right outside the polls. So predicting what teams have tough schedules and what teams don't is in many ways futile. Nobody knows anything until after the games have been played.

2. Within Easterbrook's rant on West Virginia, Gregg writes that his son's high school team plays a "significantly tougher" schedule than West Virginia. Should we give Easterbrook the benefit of the doubt that he didn't mean that the high school teams his son will play are actually better than Louisville, Maryland, Pittsburgh and Rutgers (or any of the other 85-scholarship giving, recruiting-the-best-of-high-school opponents)? It kind of reads that way. I'm willing to say that this falls into one of my pet peeve fallacies: comparing different levels. This is the same kind of argument that idiot writers make when they say that USC last year could've beaten the Browns or something. It's such a lazy, dishonest argument that such writers should have their pens taken away from them. And more specifically, is it even true, even if we assume Easterbrook meant "relatively" or "respectively" tougher? All we know is that Easterbrook's son is playing 4 teams that made the state playoffs. Well, how are the state playoffs run? In Georgia, each division sends the top 4 teams out of 8-10 to the playoffs. Say Easterbrook's kid plays for a bad team (or even a good one that just didn't make the playoffs last year). Is it really that much high praise for his kid's schedule when the tough opponents the kid plays are a result purely of the playoff structure? Had his kid's team made the playoffs last year, would they only be playing 3 playoff teams? Consider: the Big East sent 4 teams to bowls last year, akin to sending teams to the playoffs. West Virginia was one of them. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is playing 4 conference teams that went to bowls. See how it works? Also, by the end of the year, West Virginia will play at least 4 teams that go to bowls, assuming they play in a bowl game. So WVU's schedule really is pretty comparable to his kid's (relatively), and by no means "significantly tougher".

3. At the beginning of the WVU paragraph, Easterbrook writes of how WVU has been hyped to play in the BCS title game. But Easterbrook fails to draw the causal connection between the hype and the supposedly easy schedule. One of the main reasons why CNNsi and CBS Sportsline (and interesting how he fails to mention Bruce Feldman, Mark Schlabach or Ivan Maisel at did hype WVU is the supposedly favorable schedule. Easterbrook appears to be stunned that such a good team would have a schedule so easy. But the reason why the team is considered good this year is (in the eyes of many pundits) the schedule itself. The hype is because of the schedule, not the schedule is because of the hype.

4. My vote for the dumbest thing he wrote in this column: "But with a 12-game slate and six wins required for bowl eligibility, an orangutan could coach a top 25 school into a bowl." Uhh... Gregg... If a team is in the top 25, they're good. There are 32 bowl games this year. That means some 64 teams will end up in a bowl (whether that's good or bad is definitely debatable). I'm willing to guess that if a school is in the "top 25", they'll end up with a bowl bid. In fact, I'd argue that it'd be an accomplishment for an orangutan, or a Nobel laureate for that matter, NOT to coach a "top 25 school into a bowl". The only scenario where I could see a team ranked but not going to a bowl is when the team is on probation.

5. Easterbrook draws our attention to Virginia Tech's schedule of 8 home games. I've discussed this before with CFR over at College Football Resource. Looking at home/away schedules from a one-year perspective is an incomplete assessment. VT's road scheduling gets significantly better in the coming years. They only play 6 home games next year, and only 6 in '09. The market for top-tier money-making programs (as I discuss below) will be 7 home games. So if one year you only have 6 because of quirks in the schedule, you've got to make it up later. It's market driven. So Easterbrook's indignance at VT's schedule belies a more nuanced, long-term view of scheduling.

6. Finally, and the main reason why I started writing this post, Easterbrook brings up the Pete Thamel article on away-game payments in the NY Times. This is an interesting article and it should be discussed. Easterbrook proffers that the main premise of the article is that "perennial losers" are in a high demand that now the price is going up for schools like Buffalo or Troy to travel. Easterbrook encourages cupcakes to keep raising their prices to punish teams that schedule more home games. This entire series of paragraphs requires significant background that Easterbrook fails to provide.

Easterbrook mentions earlier that the Division I schedule has added a week to get to 12 games and he admits that this makes good financial sense for the sport as a whole. But the sport isn't really as a whole. It's 119 teams. And when 119 teams suddenly (within the last 2 years) have an extra game to schedule, several motivations come into play.

There are two kinds of of programs in Division 1-A. There are moneymaking programs and water-treading programs. The moneymaking programs know that if they were to have a home game on the schedule, the stands would be full and the crowds will bring in significant revenue. The water-treading programs know that if they were to have a home game on the schedule, they would not necessarily have a full stadium, and it isn't clear as to how much revenue they would bring in.

Simply: Georgia has a home game on the opening weekend (no matter who the opponent is), the school knows that 92,000 fans are coming and the school will make approximately $3-4 million off of the game. When Buffalo has a home game on the opening weekend (with a new coach and against a team that they actually had a chance to beat), the announced attendance was less than a third of that. Subtract from the revenues the fact that Buffalo did not have a wide-ranging television coverage (local, not even regional), and the Bulls were probably lucky to break even by hosting the game. Indeed, last year, Buffalo's average home attendance was 8,914 (PDF)- less than one tenth that at Georgia! Buffalo's entire 2005 attendance was less than half of the attendance at just a single game for Georgia. It's easy to see that Buffalo lost money playing at home.

It is in Georgia's financial interest to host home games (there is no way that Georgia could demand an appearance guaranty approaching what they make with a home game). But it is also in Buffalo's financial interest to travel. If Buffalo can get a $600K guaranty to travel, but would barely break even at home, OF COURSE they should take the road game. Then invest the money in upgrading facilities or recruiting budgets - so the team is better against comparable conference opponents. Winning within a conference can grow the fanbase, and maybe 5-10 years down the road it wouldn't be in the school's interest to go on the road so much.

Easterbrook claims that it's a "seller's market" for cupcake teams. I think that's only half true (and maybe even just one/third true).

Indeed, the price of guarantees for traveling teams has gone up recently (and several teams have been breaking contracts because of this), but I believe this is only a short-term increase. Only a year and a half ago the NCAA and conferences approved the 12th game. While normally schedules are set in stone 3-10 years in advance, now 119 schools had really less than 9 months to set up a game. "Moneymaking" programs scrambled to ensure they added another home game (as it's in their best financial interest). This scramble made it a seller's market, but only temporarily. As the ADs begin to plan for the added games in the coming years, expect the demand for these games to cool.

Another reason why the "seller's market" isn't exactly an accurate depiction of what's going on with scheduling is that there are two market forces at play here. Look back at Buffalo's average home attendance for 2005. At only 8,000 fans, there is no possible way that Buffalo can make money scheduling home games. And other teams know it. Yes, their fee lately has jumped to $600K, but that was because there was basically a bidding war for their appearance after the additional game came around. Without a bidding war between multiple "moneymaking" programs, expect the price for Buffalo to come down significantly. The reason: other schools know that Buffalo and similarly situated schools can't "afford" to host a game. They NEED the road guaranty money because they cannot create anything close to that kind of revenue on their own. When you NEED something, you've lost bargaining position.

Finally, the "seller's market" has another troublesome factor at play - the Division 1-AA opponent. Few fans appreciate the appearance of a 1-AA opponent on their favorite team's schedule, but it's getting more and more commonplace. And when things become commonplace, they become more acceptable. 11 of the 12 teams in the Big XII have a 1-AA opponent on the schedule this year. 6 of 8 Big East teams. 8 of 11 Big Ten Teams. 8 of 12 SEC teams. 5 of 10 Pac 10 teams. 7 of 12 ACC teams. That's 45 of the 65 teams in BCS conferences. And the smaller conferences are at it too: 6/12 in C-USA, 6/9 in the MWC, 4/12 in the MAC, 6/9 in the WAC, 3/8 in the Sun Belt, and 2 of the 4 Independents. 72 of the 119 (over 60%) Division I programs have a Division 1-AA team on the schedule this year. This is somewhat abnormal, again, because of the short timeframe to schedule the 12th game, but there are reasons to think that it might become regular. For one thing, there is an imbalance of "moneymaking" programs and "water-treading" programs. Namely, there are more moneymakers in Division 1. If 80 programs are looking to schedule more home games and 40 are looking to schedule more road games (for their financial well-being), then there aren't enough teams to travel. The other thing is that Division 1-AA teams are less expensive. It costs less to run a 1-AA program than a 1-A program, naturally - since there are fewer scholarships and the pressures of competing against other big-time programs aren't exactly there. A 1-AA program's budget is smaller, so a team from 1-AA can survive or prosper on a smaller margin of profit on an away-game guaranty. A $250K guaranty for Western Kentucky is likely more than the profit of several games against intra-division opponents. And that is bad news for the water-treading 1-A teams, like Buffalo. If Buffalo is demanding $600K, but Auburn can get The Citadel for half that, Buffalo's price will come down, again, because they can't afford to stay at home. The only limitation on merging the price market for away-game guarantees between 1-A and 1-AA teams is the perception in the press. But when 60% of the teams are doing it, the shame of scheduling a 1-AA opponent begins to erode and disappear.

So when Easterbrook writes that it's a "seller's market" for cupcakes to travel, I don't think he's exactly right. I think the recent increases and bidding wars are due to the temporary demand caused by the added 12th game. It's not exactly a "seller's market" because the "sellers" are "motivated" by the fact that they cannot afford to schedule home games. Finally, the "sellers" are undercut by 1-AA opponents who do not have the same kind of budgetary and profit demands 1-A programs have.

Staying on this topic, and not merely trying to dispute Easterbrook (as I do think he raises some points that have some merit), I think a discussion on home/away scheduling needs some further development.

Easterbrook compares the NFL's scheduling system to College by saying that it wouldn't be fair if the Broncos played 10 home games. This is true. College Football is not fair. It is also not centrally organized and scheduled. There is a freedom given to individual programs, and in many ways the market determines things. I typically abhor political comparisons, and I think you all can grasp what I'm getting at. Before the Arizona Cardinals got their shiny new stadium, might they have been better off "selling" the rights to stage a game that should've been played in the desert to the Washington Redskins and their 40-year-waiting-list crazed fans? They might've been. But the NFL doesn't allow for the free market. And yes, it is fairer.

But what if the NCAA imposed particular rules on conferences and individual programs? What if the NCAA prohibited all 1-A teams from scheduling 1-AA opponents? What if the NCAA required all 1-A programs to have an equal number of road and away games?

Let me take on the latter question first, and what I think would result. First, we'd have to imagine a college football world without neutral site games - no more Army-Navy in Philadelphia or Baltimore, no more Georgia-Florida in Jacksonville, no more Red River Shootout in Dallas. Some folks might be OK with that (I don't know if I would be). Second, I think the market would eventually force 15-30 teams into discontinuing their programs or dropping down to 1-AA. These are the "water-treaders" and I believe it'd be a quicker death for many programs than you might think. The reason is that many teams rely on away game guarantees in OOC games to make up a majority of the football program budget. Were "moneymaking" teams forced to travel (against financial best interests), the vast majority of matchups would become quid-pro-quo arrangements and away game guarantees would disappear entirely. Overnight, a program like Buffalo would have to replace $2-3 million in revenues. Over a couple of years, the budget necessary to carry 85 scholarship athletes and the related expenses of running a big program would become far too great.

It's possible that college football with 30 fewer teams could be better than it is today. There'd be more big-name matchups outside of conference play. But it would exclude a lot of smaller program's fans. And the gateway to becoming a top program might be tougher to get through (or not, if smaller programs can rise up and beat better teams now that they play more often at home). I have to think that there will always be certain cupcake programs, no matter if 20 were whittled off the 1-A ranks. College football is broader than the NFL. While parity in the NFL serves as the rising tide that lifts all boats, I'm not sure parity would be a good thing in college, or if it's even possible. Limitations on scholarships have had some effect, but traditional powers are usually still pretty good.

I know this was a rambling post (and probably 4 posts in one). Sorry.

So in sum... Gregg Easterbrook should avoid talking about college football. And the economics of college football scheduling is an interesting debate that I don't believe is easily summed up in slogans or soundbites.